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Africville redux 

Just like the Africville community before it, north end Halifax is in danger of being destroyed.

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The award of the federal shipbuilding contract to Halifax's Irving yard was announced at around 5pm on October 19. By 7pm that evening I received the first press release from a local realtor extolling the possibilities for profit from the decision. Over the next few days dozens more rolled in: "Now is the time to buy," they said.

Sure enough, rents are already skyrocketing in the north end. Anecdotally I'm hearing of $100 and more in monthly increases, and there's been a boom in sales and development proposals.

We're told the shipbuilding contract will lift all boats, but it's not likely many people in the struggling north end neighbourhood will be employed directly by the shipyard. These residents will, however, bear the brunt of the real estate boom.

But the city is doing nothing to help the neighbourhood. On the contrary--- city council has pulled the legs out from the organizations that bring support and stability to the community, and city officials are frustrating and delaying the efforts to build affordable housing projects in the area.

The closure of St. Patrick's-Alexandra school was a blow, but could have provided a wonderful opportunity for community organizations. The North End Community Health Clinic, the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre and other non-profits serving the area could have moved out of their collapsing Gottingen Street storefronts and into the school, reducing their property costs and taking advantage of the school's gymnasium and additional space for child care, after-school and other programs.

As Mairin Prentiss reports this week, the city's policy for handling surplus school properties calls for first offering the property available to community organizations, and only putting the property up for sale if the community organizations can't make use of it. In the case of St. Pat's-Alexandra, however, the city failed to notify community organizations and instead made a deal with developer Joe Metlege to tear down the school and put condos on the site.

Metlege and the city talk about committing maybe five percent of the site to "affordable" housing, but no one ever gets around to detailing what that means, exactly. The way "affordable" is currently defined in city hall, it means simply that housing costs less than a third of a resident's income---so, a $2,000 monthly rent is "affordable housing," so long as the renter makes $72,000 a year. That's not much comfort to many north end residents.

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Meanwhile, the organization that is trying to build actual affordable housing for working poor people in the neighbourhood is fighting tooth and nail against a city bureaucracy that won't budge from outdated planning policies.

Last year, the Nova Scotia Housing Trust bought the dilapidated former Diamonds bar and Mitchell's Environmental Treasures buildings on Gottingen Street and tore them down in preparation for building two apartment buildings. Each will have about 100 units, half at market rates, half with subsidized rents affordable to people working low-wage jobs.

Housing Trust president Ross Cantwell tells me that he's faced nothing but frustration for 14 months from city hall, which insists on applying planning rules cobbled together in the 1990s and which contradict the regional plan adopted in 2006. City staff wanted the trust to wait three years for new plans to be adopted, but Cantwell is hopeful he can start construction ---in the summer of 2013, maybe.

For Cantwell, true affordable housing in the north end is an economic development issue. The low-wage service workers necessary for a thriving downtown need to live close to work, otherwise taxpayers will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for increased transit and bigger roads necessary for the workers to commute, and businesses will have to pay higher wages to compensate for increased commuting costs and time.

Cantwell thinks talk of a "new Africville" is counterproductive and polarizing, but already people in the neighbourhood are saying as much. And why shouldn't they? Their community institutions are being undermined, and wolfish realtors and developers are gnashing their teeth at the prospect of tearing down the neighbourhood to rebuild it as a high-rent district.

The bulldozers are revved up and ready to go. And just like 1964, the city appears content to watch a community get ripped apart and dispersed to the wind, solely for the crime of being poor.

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